Gustafson makes meals for residents at Liberty Village

Jerilyn VanDeWoestyne
Julie Gustafson has been a cook at Liberty Village in Geneseo for the past five years.

Although Julie Gustafson of Mineral admits she isn’t all that fond of cooking, she spends a good deal of her time in the kitchen creating special dishes, whether at work or at home.

As cook at Liberty Village in Geneseo, Julie said the residents are one of the best things about her job, “Oh yes, I really like it here. I love the residents, they are so funny. I could write a book on some of my experiences,” she laughs. “It is something new every day with them. I always ask them about how the food is, especially if I’m trying a new recipe, and they tell me the truth. I know I can count on them to be truthful about it.”

Julie adds she never wants to serve something they don’t like.

Having cooked at Liberty Village for most of the past five years, Julie said they serve between 36 and 46 people each meal and she is in charge of lunch, dinner and the Sunday brunch every other Sunday.

“I always say if I can make just one person happy every day, I’m happy. And most of the time, they are all pretty happy,” she said.

“We have a menu to follow, but sometimes I don’t follow it precisely,” she said. “Like with a meat dish, I always use the meat they suggest, but sometimes I might make the dish a little different than the menu says.”

Julie explains that most of their residents are from a farming background, and they like their meals to be meat, potatoes, vegetable, salad and, of course, dessert.

“We have brunch every Sunday and the residents love that. Then Sunday night is always soup and a sandwich,” she said, adding the residents especially like creamy soups.

“I make the soups from scratch in the kitchen right here. I use some of this and some of that.”

Recently, when she was looking around to see what she had in the freezer, Julie came up with a carrot soup that everyone liked. “I had some carrots in the freezer so I made up a recipe for the soup. I’d never made it before, but they loved it, some even had seconds,” she laughs.

For the carrot soup, Julie started by cooking the carrots in chicken broth with onions. She cooked them until the carrots were done, then added a soup base. “I like to do that, kind of make up my own recipes,” she said.

Popular soups served at Liberty Village include such favorites as cream of spinach or cream of broccoli soup, turkey or chicken noodle, vegetable soup or tomato soup. “And they really love chili — you wouldn’t think so, but they do,” she said, adding she is careful with spices. “If I look at a recipe and it’s too spicy, I’ll back off a  little on them.”

On the menu for Sunday brunch at Liberty Village is usually country gravy with sausage and biscuits, boiled eggs, caramel French toast (a dish the residents absolutely love, according to Julie), potato casserole, bacon and sausage. “And they love the fresh fruit that is offered, so we always have that available,” Julie said.

“Occasionally we have guests for meals, especially the Sunday brunch, and we encourage the residents to invite family members.”

Julie and her husband, Kevin, will celebrate their 32nd wedding anniversary this year. Their family includes a daughter and son-in-law, Megan and Christopher; a son, Brock; and two grandchildren, Kyler, 4, and Gavin, 11 months.

Her family is very important to Julie. She lists being with her husband and family as her favorite hobby. “They are the most important part of my life,” she said, adding after her family, her list of favorite hobbies includes gardening, reading and remodeling their home.

“We don’t eat out much, I don’t really care to,” she said. “I’d rather stay at home and if I have a steak, baked potato, corn and a salad, I’m good. I guess I’m  kind of a home body.”

Meals are served buffet style at Liberty Village with the lunch and dinner meals including a salad bar, another popular item of residents. “Our ‘salad girls’ do a great job on the salad bar, they basically make salads all day.”

The “salad girls” at Liberty Village are Connie Logue, Michelle Myers and Bonnie Stanley and, according to Julie, they do five different salads at every meal. “They are constantly making salads,” she said, adding the meals always include potato salad, cole slaw and Jell-O. “And we have cottage cheese available for those who don’t want a meat item, they can get some protein with the cottage cheese.”

The meals include two meats, a vegetable, potato, bread, salad bar and dessert.

Dessert is very popular with residents at ?Liberty Village. “They love things like cherry cobbler, Black Forest cake, puddings, pies and custards,” Julie said, adding she likes to try new recipes on the residents.

“The first time I try a new recipe, I follow it very carefully, then if I make it again, I might tweak the recipe a little bit. I really like to do that.”

She remembers one time she made chicken enchiladas and they were a little spicy so she used less chili powder the next time. “Then one of the residents suggested I try it with hamburger rather than chicken. It turned out real good and now I might make the enchiladas with chicken one time and beef the next. It’s different every time,” Julie said, adding she likes it when residents make meal suggestions. “It’s fun working here.”

Having never had any formal training in cooking, except for home economics classes in high school, Julie said she is pretty much a self taught cook. “When I was in high school, I couldn’t even boil water,” she laughs. “It’s fun to try different things here. They like the basics best, but I might try something new and different just to hear what they’re going to say about it. You can’t help but come to care for the residents here. They become really good friends to you.”

On one occasion, Julie said she was “somewhat baffled” about what to fix for dinner. “So I used my recipe for green bean casserole and added a layer of chicken to it and it turned out really well,” she said. “They all liked it.”

First she boiled boneless, skinless chicken breasts, then cut them in half and added the rest of the ingredients for the green bean casserole, finishing up with a layer of French fried onion on top. Each chicken half was a serving. “It turned out good and I even tried it at home and my family liked it too,” Julie said, adding she is always thinking about menu items.

“We get menus for six weeks at a time, and I go through them and then write down my own notes. That just makes it easier for me to follow.”

One rule of thumb Julie said she likes to tell her family is when she cooks at work, she doesn’t cook at home. “My daughter does a lot of the baking at home and she does a really good job. She likes to bake,” Julie said.

One exception is the holiday baking Julie does. “I love to do cookies and candy at Christmas,” she said, adding she does turtles, caramel corn, peanut clusters and fudge along with lots of homemade cookies. “The caramel corn is a favorite of my son’s and he always takes a big bucket of it to work.”

Although most of the baking she does during the holidays is for her family, Julie said she sometimes brings goodies to work for the residents and her co-workers.

Some of her family’s favorite dishes are tacos, enchiladas and the chicken and green bean casserole. “They aren’t really picky eaters so that makes it fun to cook for them,” Julie said, noting her family’s favorite meal is probably a hamburger stuffed with cheese.

“I take two hamburger patties, put a slice of Velveeta cheese on top of one and cover it with the other patty, then I grill it. They love that meal and I would probably just serve it with a lettuce salad and corn on the cob.” Julie adds her family loves to grill outdoors so anything that has been prepared on the grill is usually all right with them.

Whether at work or at home, Julie said she likes to keep her pantry well stocked. “Once a month I do my big grocery shopping for  home,” she said. “And once a week I will go through our supplies at Liberty Village and put things on my list. All of us who work here do that and they are really good about getting us what we need.”

Presentation is also something Julie thinks about all the time wherever she is cooking. “Presentation is extremely important. If the food doesn’t look appealing, they’re not going to like it,” she said. “I like to add color to a plate. If you have some color, it’s much more eye appealing.”

Julie likes to collect recipes and said she gets a lot of recipes and ideas from magazines and newspapers. “Lots of times, though, I’ll tweak the recipe,” she said. “I may take an ingredient out or add something I think a recipe needs. If I think it needs more of something I’m not afraid to add it.”

She also likes to share recipes with others. “I don’t mind sharing recipes and I also don’t mind asking for one that I like,” she laughs. “People are usually good to share, especially my co-workers.”

One of the recipes that her family likes and that is good to take to potlucks or family gatherings, according to Julie, is a grape salad made with a dressing of sour cream and cream cheese. “It is a good dish to take somewhere,” she said. “It is always one of the first things gone at a potluck.”

Julie advises cooks to go for it. “Try cooking and accept the challenge,” she said.

Her favorite thing about cooking, according to Julie, is making a mess in the kitchen. “I love to make a mess, but I hate cleanup,” she laughs. “I also like to tweak a recipe and change it, maybe just a little bit, and make it my own.”

Julie enjoys a challenge — whether in cooking or anything else. “If you tell me I can’t do it, I’m more determined than ever to get the job done, and that goes for anything,” she said. “I take challenge very seriously.”

Julie Gustafson shares some of her favorite recipes.

White chocolate Ritz

Julie Gustafson

1 pkg. white chocolate bark

1 pkg. white chips

1 box Ritz crackers

1 jar peanut butter

Melt bark and chips over double boiler.

Place peanut butter on Ritz, making a sandwich.

Dip Ritz “sandwiches” into melted bark.

Place on waxed paper to cool.

Note: Can also use chocolate bark and milk chocolate chips.

Grape salad

Julie Gustafson

4 lbs. seedless grapes

8 oz. pkg. cream cheese (room temperature)

8 oz. sour cream

1/2 C. sugar or Splenda (I use 12 packets)

1 t. vanilla

brown sugar

chopped pecans

Wash grapes, allow to drain, pat dry.

Mix cream cheese, sour cream, sugar and vanilla.

Pour over grapes and stir until coated.

Place in serving bowl and sprinkle with brown sugar and pecans (or walnuts).

Caramel French toast casserole

Julie Gustafson

Grease 9x13 inch baking pan.

1 C. brown sugar

1/2 C. butter

2 T. corn syrup

Combine and cook over medium heat until brown sugar is melted.

Pour into baking pan. Add:

6 slices bread over the syrup mixture.

Top with 6 more slices of bread.


8 eggs

3 C. milk

1 t. vanilla

1/2 t. salt

Mix together and pour over the bread.

Chill overnight.

Bake at 325 degrees for one hour.

Easy chicken and cheese enchiladas

Julie Gustafson

1 can (10-3/4 oz.) cream of chicken soup

1/2 C. sour cream

1 C. picante sauce

2 t. chili powder

2 C. chopped, cooked chicken

1/2 C. shredded Monterey Jack cheese

6 flour tortillas (6 inch), warmed

1 small tomato, chopped

1 green onion, sliced

Stir the soup, sour cream, picante sauce and chili powder in a medium bowl.

Stir 1 C. picante sauce mixture, chicken and cheese in a large bowl.

Divide the chicken mixture among the tortillas.

Roll up the tortillas and place them seamside up in an 11x8 inch shallow baking dish. Pour the remaining picante sauce mixture over the filled tortillas.

Cover the baking dish.

Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes or until the enchiladas are hot and bubbling.

Top with the tomato and onion.

Prep time: 10 minutes.

Bake time: 40 minutes.

Makes 6 servings.